A reputation on trial, not the politician

New Haven – He is not charged. He wasn’t in court. But former House Speaker Christopher Donovan was a major presence Monday as testimony opened in the political corruption case that derailed his 2012 congressional campaign.

A publicist greeted reporters with a statement from Donovan. His lawyer sat in the second row, monitoring testimony. Donovan’s voice was heard on a secretly recorded conversation, and his campaign finance report flashed on a video screen.

The defendant on trial is Donovan’s former campaign finance director, Robert Braddock Jr., but Donovan’s reputation and what he did or didn’t know is under examination, alongside Braddock.

“It’s a little of both,” said Frank Riccio II, who is defending the 34-year-old Braddock. “The trial shouldn’t be about Chris Donovan and his reputation, but it is becoming that.”

Unwitting or not, Donovan was at the center of an unsuccessful effort last year to preserve a loophole that briefly created a lucrative tax-free business of selling roll-your-own cigarettes in Connecticut.

Donovan is anticipating a further bruising of his reputation as federal prosecutors try Braddock, who is accused of conspiring with seven others to kill tobacco tax legislation.

“Whatever anyone might say or imply, I have not been charged in this case, I am not on trial in this courtroom,” Donovan, a Democrat from Meriden, said in a written statement distributed by a friend, Audrey Honig Geragosian.

(Aside from the tobacco issue, federal investigators also are examining legislation intended to increase funding for a chain of nonprofit health clinics run by a supporter. No one has been charged in that inquiry.)

His lawyer, Shelley R. Sadin, briefly argued with a federal prosecutor during a break over the government flashing Donovan’s picture on a video screen with other figures in the case — all defendants. She declined comment.

His former campaign manager, Joshua Nassi, has pleaded guilty, as have Waterbury smoke-shop owners and a former correction officer active in union and Democratic politics, Harry Raymond Soucy.

Soucy, the former president of the Western Connecticut Central Labor Council and treasurer of an AFSCME local that represents prison employees in Cheshire, played a pivotal role as go-between for the businessmen and campaign.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Mattei told jurors in his opening remarks that the case grew out of a tip from the New York office of the FBI, whose agents were dealing with a felon named Patrick Castagna, who was convicted of a drug offense in Florida more than 20 years ago.

Castagna, who was under investigation more recently for fraud and stock market manipuation, is an investor in a Norwalk smoke-shop who told the agents of an effort to bribe a legislator to keep the roll-your-own business tax free.

He helped gather evidence against the Waterbury smoke-shop owners, making a recorded call in November 2011. The government has no plans to call him as a witness, Mattei said.

Frank Riccio II, who represents Braddock, told the jury that the government’s case primarily is the result of the bragging of Soucy, who claimed a friendship with Donovan and an ability to influence the General Assembly.

Soucy went from being a self-described political fixer to a cooperating witness once he was confront by FBI agents. He then wore a device that recorded video and audio of his later meetings with Donovan and the smoke-shop owners.

With a withering description of Soucy’s personality and character, Riccio left no doubt that Soucy’s credibility will be key to Braddock’s defense. He called him a “creep” and “diabolical.”

“He makes your skin crawl,” Riccio said. “He’s arrogant. He’s rude. He’s a lot of things, and he had an agenda himself.”

The heart of the government’s case is simple:

The U.S. attorney’s office alleges that the smoke-shop owners made a series of $2,500 contributions totaling about $30,000 to persuade Donovan to stop the tobacco tax legislation.

It also alleges that they hid the source of money by using straw donors, and that recordings will show that Braddock was aware of the deception.

The conspiracy was hatched, prosecutors say, to protect a business that flourished in 2011 after it appeared that Connecticut tax law, which imposes more than $3 in taxes on every pack of cigarettes, did not cover the roll-your-own business.

Customers flocked to the smoke shops, where they could save $30 on a carton of cigarettes.

The regular 2012 session of the General Assembly ended without a vote on a Senate bill to close the loophole, but legislators passed the bill in special session soon after, killing the business.

The scandal broke May 31, 2012, the day after FBI agents arrested Braddock and implicated Nassi, who would later be indicted and plead guilty. Donovan was then the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, but he lost a three-way primary in August to Elizabeth Esty.

“This is a sad time for me, after spending my political career working to clean up the political process and fix a broken campaign finance system,” Donovan said in his statement Monday.

Paul Rogers, one of the smoke-shop owners who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy, was the first witness, testing about the roll-your-own business and efforts by the conspirators to use Donovan’s office to keep their business profitable.

In one conversation secretly recorded by Soucy at a Donovan fundraiser, Braddock is heard telling the businessmen, “I think you guys are going to be fine.”

Donovan is heard making small talk with the men in another conversation at the fundraiser. He says nothing about their interest in legislation, but it is clear he knows about their business. He jokes about some of his staff being customers.

“I’ll send them up for a field trip,” he said.

Soucy asks Donovan how to get campaign signs for the shops.

“OK, talk to Josh,” Donovan said.

“Thank you,” Castagna said. Then, apparently after Donovan left, he added, “That was nice.”

“See,” Soucy said.

“He’s a nice guy,” Castagna said.

The trial in U.S. District Court in New Haven is expected to last two weeks.

Correction: An early version of this story incorrectly referred to the status of the New York fraud and stock-market manipulation investigation involving Patrick Castagna.